Education officials call for study of state’s pre-K and dual enrollment programs

MONTPELIER — Education officials are calling for an examination of the state’s pre-K and dual enrollment programs so more low-income children can take advantage of them.

The State Board of Education is asking lawmakers to look at the unintended consequences of programs that are intended to provide for greater educational equity, but are being utilized more frequently middle-class and affluent families than those living in poverty.

William Mathis, chairman of the board’s Legislative Committee, made it clear the board supports the initiatives that are intended to expend pre-K education and allow high school students to take college courses, but is concerned the programs might not be reaching the students who need them most.

“We strongly support both dual enrollment and preschool enrollment. These are some of the most important programs we have to promote equity,” Mathis said. “But, what start out as great programs end up having unintended consequences that work against the programs’ intent.”

According to a legislative report issued this month by Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe to the General Assembly, students living in poverty are less likely to take advantage of dual enrollment programs than their peers who do not living in poverty.

According to the report, while 42 percent of Vermont’s K-12 public school population receives free or reduced lunch – a metric to measure students living in poverty – only 26 percent of students who employ dual enrollment receive free or reduced lunch.

In 2014, high school students in Chittenden County — the state’s most affluent — made up 30 percent of the participants in the dual enrollment program, despite making up 21 percent of the state’s population.

On the other hand, in 2014, Orange County — which includes 7 percent of the state’s students — only 3 percent of students participated in dual enrollment.

Jeff Francis, executive director of the Vermont Superintendents Association, said the difference in participation rates in counties such as Chittenden and Orange likely arises from two factors.

“The opportunities that are available are reflective of where a child resides. Not only does that cut along geographic lines, but whether the child has transportation,” said Francis, noting a child’s access to transportation is a function of a household’s income.

Similar economic factors can impact access to universal pre-K, a program in which a household receives a $3,000 voucher to pay for 10 hours of education a week. Francis discussed the results of a February survey of superintendents on the subject.

“They were not certain the children who are among the neediest have strong access to pre-K education in all cases,” Francis said.

Mathis noted that a more affluent family will be able to subsidize the voucher to pay for full-time care and education for their children, while a parent living in poverty will be less able to do so.

Like Mathis, Francis said the programs are of paramount importance.

“These important policies are the foundation of the public education system, arguably for the next decade or more, and out interest is in making sure that we’re getting it right,” Francis said.

Holcombe also agreed the issue of access needs to be studied.

“It’s something we have to be attentive to, because we know that when kids are growing up in extreme adversity, they need a little more help sometimes to be able to sit at the same table and take advantage of the same opportunities,” Holcombe said.

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